Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Holistic Theatre

Holism – noun Philosophy – The theory that whole entities, as fundamental components of reality, have an existence other than as the mere sum of their parts. (Random House Dictionary, 2009)

The spirit of theatre, I believe, comes in the hope of uniting audience and production. A hope that spectators will be more than spectators, that actors will do more than entertain, that all in the room on a particular evening will connect through higher themes and emotions – that people will be, for lack of a better term, moved.

A few months ago I sat in on a Butoh workshop. Feeling rather unwell that day, I (sadly) opted only to watch rather than participate. Though downtrodden, being witness proved to bear its own gifts beyond the scholastic and analytic. For here I am, months past and still stirring with thoughts and feelings from the encounter. As a workshop, it was (smartly) not geared toward the idea of the “performative” – for an “audience” – but nor was it for personal, private, (selfish?), learning. Those participating were guided to express, for whoever was willing to holistically listen, the seemingly inexpressible essences of whom they uniquely are.

What a joy! Here was all the humanity of each individual participating in all its frighteningly unsanitary glory. No jars or tubes, no gloves or goggles, no disinfectants or antibacterial wipes. No fourth walls or contrivance of a character. Meat on my plate, straight from the hide. Raw, bleeding.

Take a breath, hold it, and dance your final dance of life until you can dance no more. Walk the timeline of your life, from birth to death, not failing to take time and cherish the moments in between. They all will come, but they all will pass. And death will come, and you will pass.

This was as great a theatre as any I could hope to see upon a stage. Perhaps as Romantic in theory as could exist, too. It was grotesque, but that it was made it beautiful. I saw the rich life of those I knew, and recognized the fruitfulness of those I didn’t. I thought of my life, my connections, what my dance of life would be. I was filled with love and hope, and wanted to do better in the world, make stronger, more loving connections while I was able. I was in awe of the spirit of (wo)man.

This is what theatre should be.

I have spent this summer working on Joan of Arc at Fort Tryon Park with Gorilla Rep, an environmental and ensemble based group that takes great pride in directly connecting with the audience to make them truly a part of the show.* During one performance, in the latter part of the play as it moved near the large archway at the base of the Pine Grove area, a dark, clearly solid object came plummeting out of the sky and nailed a teenage audience member square on the head. The show was stopped as the girl was tended to, our young war veteran director chased off the culprits, and cast joined audience beyond the (500 watt) lights. Suddenly, I was back in the classroom, experiencing Butoh. Breath held, our spirits danced in fear, hoping the girl to be uninjured. It was roughly ten minutes that cast and audience shared as family, strengthening our devotion to being better people over this unnecessarily violent act. Fortunately, we shortly discovered the object was only a half-filled beer can. Our combat medic cleared the beer-soaked teen of any severe injury (aside from the slight to her dignity) and when asked, she insisted on seeing the rest of the show (it was her second time). And almost all of the some-odd hundred audience members stayed as well. Not because the show was that fantastic (though we’d like to believe it was), but because of a deep emotional connection to community. We all stuck together. That’s what Joan of Arc is all about.

There was something very special about the end of that performance. The strange, artificial (and somehow inevitable) wall between performance and audience was permanently stripped from the evening. I felt an incredible, overwhelming need to tell the rest of this story to the absolute best of my ability (Joan of Arc is, after all, about love and greed, right and wrong, and the very gray line between them). Which was tough. I was playing a vindictive character attempting to rape Joan, ultimately gaining pleasure from her burning. It was, however, so important for this audience that I play my role truthfully that I – and the whole rest of the cast – prevailed with incredible fervor. That last thirty minutes were one of the greatest gifts as an actor I feel I’ve both ever given and received.

Yes, a select few were very angry the show was not stopped and the cops were not called. Yes, some participants did not give over to the experience in the Butoh workshop. But they are important, too. They are humanity that must be recognized, and the earth shared with them as well. Theatre should remind us of our community we must love while we share our brief moments on earth. And great theatre will not just “show” us, but truly share with us the same thick air in a small room gathered under the stars willing to look merely to one another.

* - I do not mean, though I admit it certainly sounds like it, to say that Gorilla Rep is what theatre should be.

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